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Alleging exclusion, Jewish faculty boycott James Madison University’s Holocaust commemoration event



(JTA) — An event that took place at a Virginia university Thursday night to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day was scheduled to feature lectures about the legacies of Auschwitz and the intersection between white supremacy and antisemitism. There was also a planned recitation of a poem and a musical performance.

Not on the docket at James Madison University: support for the event from the school’s Jewish faculty and staff.

Dozens of them announced in an open letter that they would boycott the event, titled “An Evening Conversation on the History and Legacy of the Holocaust,” citing concerns about its appropriateness. Of particular concern, according to multiple people familiar with the situation, was a planned performance by the university’s provost, a pianist, during a segment titled “Music as Refuge in the Holocaust.”

“There was no refuge for those targeted by the ‘Final Solution,’” said the open letter, which was unsigned but said it had the support of “24 of Jewish JMU Faculty, Faculty Emeriti, and Staff.”

The letter, which the school’s student newspaper The Breeze published Thursday morning, said the planning of the Holocaust event had “disrespected and disparaged Jewish individuals, dismissed Jewish participation and failed to reflect the inclusive values that JMU purports to foster.” The letter criticized the university’s decision to invite keynote speakers from other universities and the rabbi of a neighboring community to give a community address, rather than centering James Madison personnel or the local rabbi.

That rabbi, Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner of Beth El Congregation of Harrisonburg, said the event had been planned with little to no input from Jews, and that three Jews who were added to the planning committee late in the process later resigned en masse.

In an interview, Kurtz-Lendner compared the event to “a Martin Luther King observance planned by an entire committee of white people.” He said he was joining the boycott and not encouraging his congregants, who include James Madison professors, to attend. He said the rabbi listed on the original program, from a Reform synagogue about 30 miles away in Staunton, would not attend, either.

“The program looks wholly insensitive,” he said. “Instead of being a commemoration of the Holocaust, it looks like it’s turning into an opportunity for celebration.”

That idea appeared to be rooted in the inclusion of music during the event. Maura Hametz, the Jewish chair of the university’s history department, said she had successfully argued against including instrumental music during last year’s commemoration, citing prohibitions in Jewish tradition against instrumental music in times of mourning.

“Biblically we don’t use instrumental music, as Jews,” to commemorate the Holocaust, she said. “If you use the instruments, it’s a celebration.” The proposal to include a musical interlude, she said, also had a history in “medieval church music, so that doesn’t track with what is good for us.”

The belief that Holocaust commemorations cannot include music is not universally held; some commemorations have featured music written by Jewish composers as acts of resistance or remembrance. International Holocaust Remembrance Day was created by the United Nations in 2005 as a way to mourn all victims of the Holocaust, distinct from Yom HaShoah, the Jewish holiday that takes place in April and was established by the Israeli government to commemorate specifically Jewish Holocaust victims.

Still, Hametz had made the case against music last year, so when she saw that this year’s event was again scheduled to include musical selections, she said, “It did surprise me.” She ultimately decided to boycott the event and sign the open letter.

The boycott was supported by one of the university centers sponsoring the event, the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence. Its director, Taimi Castle, issued a statement to the student newspaper saying the center would “spend time reflecting on how we can support the Jewish community at JMU in addressing the harm caused by these actions.”

A James Madison University spokesperson said Thursday that the event itself was still scheduled to proceed as intended that evening. The university said it had reached out to “a spokesperson for this group” of critics and planned to hold a meeting “to gain further understanding and collectively work on a path forward.”

The episode comes amid broad questions about the role of Jews in efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in universities and workplaces. Jewish critics of the emerging field of diversity, equity and inclusion have charged that antisemitism is not always treated as similarly offensive to racism or homophobia, despite also being rooted in hatred based on identity. The Jewish open letter signers also cited a recent statewide report on antisemitism in Virginia as reason to take their concerns about Jewish representation at the university seriously.

James Madison’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event was sponsored in part by the university’s equity and inclusion office, and the associate provost for inclusive strategies and equity initiatives was scheduled to deliver opening remarks and also moderate a question-and-answer session at the event’s end.

“This event is to create an opportunity for people to learn about the lived experiences of others and honor the Holocaust Remembrance Day through educational and solemn means,” Malika Carter-Hoyt, the school’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said in a statement provided to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The statement did not mention Jews or antisemitism.

Carter-Hoyt said she hadn’t received “any notice about these concerns” prior to the letter.

“I acknowledge the letter and express compassion toward the concerns outlined by faculty,” Carter-Hoyt said. But she also defended the planning and suggested that having Jews on the planning committee had not been a specific university priority.

“Committee members were selected based on substantive expertise and commitment to the creation of an event that properly marks the occasion,” she wrote. “No one was included or excluded explicitly based on a particular protected characteristic.”

James Madison University, located in Harrisonburg, is a public college with about 21,000 students. About 1,200 of them are Jewish, according to Hillel International, which offers some services on campus but does not have a building or rabbi there. Efforts to reach anyone affiliated with JMU Hillel were unsuccessful. The chapter’s vice president was listed as a participant on the evening’s program, scheduled to read a poem by Primo Levi, an Italian Holocaust survivor.

The school also does not have a Jewish studies department, despite what Hametz said had been extensive lobbying by faculty members to establish one. Alan Berger, who launched Jewish studies departments at Syracuse and Florida Atlantic universities, was billed as a keynote speaker at the event Thursday.

James Madison’s provost Heather Coltman, who was scheduled to play piano at the Holocaust memorial event and also previously worked at Florida Atlantic University, has an uneasy relationship with the school’s faculty. This week the faculty senate sought to condemn her for reportedly retaliating against the authors of a report on transparency at the school.

While there are courses taught on Jewish topics, the lack of a separate department means that Jewish representation on campus is limited, Hametz said.

“There is no spokesperson here for the Jewish community,” she said. “There’s no central voice to say, ‘Hey, why is this happening? How is it possible that you go ahead with a Holocaust event with no Jewish people on the committee?’”

The post Alleging exclusion, Jewish faculty boycott James Madison University’s Holocaust commemoration event appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Local News

Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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